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ACL Fest 2010 preview: The National

Patrick Caldwell

In an era of instant indie rock stardom brought on by sudden blog buzz and near-overnight hype, the National has found success the old-fashioned way: years of touring and a discography that has steadily, album by album, gotten progressively better.

Singer Matt Berninger met bassist and guitarist Scott Devendorf while in school at the University of Cincinnati, forming the lo-fi garage band Nancy. That group disintegrated after both moved to Brooklyn, but in 1999 they built a new band with Devendorf's drumming brother Bryan and guitarists — and twins — Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

The National began its days as a roots-rock-meets-Americana band — but by the release of third album ‘Alligator,' they'd evolved into something else entirely, a contemplative, melancholy indie rock band anchored by Berninger's distinctive baritone. 2007's ‘Boxer' widened their scope further, and this year's ‘High Violet' brought the band its highest level of commercial and critical success yet. Bryan Devendorf took a break from soundcheck to discuss their original direction for ‘High Violet' and the National's family band dynamic.

American-Statesman: You've been touring behind ‘High Violet' for a while now, which means you've had time to process the songs as live entities. Have you discovered things about the material that have surprised you?

Bryan Devendorf: What's most surprising just generally has been that these songs have somehow been easier to perform live than the ones off ‘Boxer.' I'm not sure why. I mean, a smart way to do it would be to write the songs, play them live and get used to them, and then record them, but we make them up in the studio and figure out how to perform them later. So they can surprise us live, sometimes. Something about these, they've just adapted really easily. We've been able to get inside them and figure out more about them. And me, I often track drums before there's even finished lyrics so I'll take a backseat in the studio, but live I can fill it out with little drum fills or details I didn't have the opportunity to explore in the studio.

To what extent did the band enter into the ‘High Violet' process with ideas about how you wanted it to sound or what direction you wanted it to take? Is that something the National does or is the process more ambiguous than that?

Well, it kind of works both ways. We definitely had intentions to make something that wasn't so dour or so downcast as our previous record was. And that reflects itself in Matt's vocal performance on this record. He's, for lack of a better phrase, singing more, using his upper register more, where on ‘Boxer' it was more mumbled. But as a general concept we kind of discussed making something kind of poppy. I don't think we really succeeded in doing that.

It's kind of a struggle for me to conceive of what a more poppy the National record would even sound like. Is that something you feel like the band is capable of?

I don't know. Maybe. Actually I don't know. I guess when we say poppy, I think we meant something more catchy. But I guess the two are kind of two sides of the same coin; I guess I don't know what the future holds, is the honest truth. We definitely have talked about getting away from so much orchestration and track quantities in future efforts. But we've said that in the past and we always end up having 96 tracks in a song, so who knows?

The band's public perception, and I think this was encouraged somewhat by the big profile of the band that ran in The New York Times Magazine in April, is that you're kind of dour.

I think the public perception that we're tortured and moody is because there is that dimension to the music and in our personalities. Matt happens to write and sing in a certain vein, so when he sings about darkness it comes from an honest place. But we're pretty normal people. I mean that's kind of a bogus word, ‘normal,' but we're not that tortured. I think of us as a fun family band without the schmaltzy Partridge Family quality.

How do you think the National being such a family affair — with yourself and Scott and Bryce and Aaron Dessner — influences the dynamic of the band?

I think it must, although it's hard to qualify. A lot of my fellow musician friends that are in bands often think it's so weird. They think it'd be strained for some reason. But I think it's very special because we get to share all these nice experiences with someone who's known you your whole life. And it helps diffuse tension or any kind of friction in the band. Because at the end of the day, I'm still going to be related to Scott and Bryce and Aaron are still going to be brothers, so we really can't burn any bridges. Of course I've never been in a real band before this one, so I don't have much perspective.

Really? The National was your first proper band?

I had a college band that played in New Orleans a couple of summers, but it was a lot more leisurely. We had grand illusions of success, but my concept of ‘success' was very abstract in college. I guess at that time, to me success meant getting paid to play music, maybe enough to make a living off of it. I was very conservative in my ambitions. I just wanted to be a working musician. I didn't imagine anything like this.

The National plays at 7 p.m. Sunday on the Honda stage.